Friday, March 04, 2016

FFB: Robert Silverberg -- Needle in a Timestack

The publication dates of the stories in Needle in a Timestack range from 1958 to 1963, so they're from Robert Silverberg's early period, right up to the beginning of the time when he was about to become known as one of SF's more literary writers.  A couple of these stories hint at what's to come, but most of them are typical fodder for the digests of the era.  They're all carefully plotted, the writing is smooth and professional, but they're not in the top rank of Silverberg's work.

That doesn't mean they aren't enjoyable if you're in the mood for some old-fashioned SF, which I often am.  Then they can be quite a bit of fun.

The book leads off with "The Pain Peddlers," which is one of the better stories in the book, maybe the best, and as a criticism of the media, it's almost prophetic.  "Passport to Sirius" is also a story that also sounds all too possible in our own time, a story of continuous warfare and a man who wants to fight.  What he finds when he gets to the front isn't at all what he expected.  "Birds of a Feather" has the same plot foundation of several Silverberg stories (and many others from the era), about a ship gathering aliens for a zoo on Earth.  It becomes something else, though, a con man vs. con man tale.  It's entertaining but not memorable.  "There Was an Old Woman" is interesting mainly for its style, which is more like that of Silverberg's later stories.  A woman raises her 31 identical sons and trains each one for a specific profession.  Things don't go as she expects, although she never knows it.  "The Shadow of Wings" is a "first contact" story with nothing much to distinguish it.  "Absolutely Inflexible" is, in spite of the collection's title, the only time travel story in the book.  If you've ever read any time-travel stories, you'll see the ending of this one coming from a mile away.  The setup is interesting, though.  "His Brother's Weeper" is one of those stories full of SF trappings that could easily have been set in contemporary times with no SF elements at all.  A supposedly dead man engaged to two women isn't dead, after all, as his brother discovers.  "The Sixth Palace" is a variation on the story of the Sphinx.  A massive robot is guarding a treasure trove.  To get by it, you have to answer its questions.  Not necessarily correctly.  The twist ending kind of helps this one.  "To See the Invisible Man" is another glimpse of the kind of story Silverberg was soon to become famous for, as its set in a society where people become "invisible" for the crime of coldness to their fellows.  "The Iron Chancellor" is a robot-gone-wrong story that would've fit into any '50s digest.  Don't trust a robot with your diet.

Some of the fun in reading these old SF stories is to see the futures imagined by the writers.  In "My Brother's Weeper," there's instantaneous travel to planets millions of miles away, but when a man sitting on his patio gets a phone call, his robot butler has to fetch him into the house to talk.  In most of the stories, things are recorded on tape or wire, and people still use typewriters.  And of course nobody even thinks of a personal computer. This doesn't bother me in the least.  I enjoyed reading the collection, but I'm a geezer and can easily flip my mind back to the '50s to read the stories.  You'll have to decide for yourself.  

Contet listing from ISFDB:
9 • The Pain Peddlers • (1963) • shortstory by Robert Silverberg
22 • Passport to Sirius • (1958) • shortstory by Robert Silverberg
38 • Birds of a Feather • (1958) • novelette by Robert Silverberg
63 • There Was an Old Woman— • (1958) • shortstory by Robert Silverberg
79 • The Shadow of Wings • (1963) • shortstory by Robert Silverberg
94 • Absolutely Inflexible • (1956) • shortstory by Robert Silverberg
109 • His Brother's Weeper • (1959) • shortstory by Robert Silverberg
133 • The Sixth Palace • (1965) • shortstory by Robert Silverberg
148 • To See the Invisible Man • (1963) • shortstory by Robert Silverberg
163 • The Iron Chancellor • (1958) • novelette by Robert Silverberg

14 comments:

George said...

I always liked this early Silverberg collection. And, I always liked the cool cover artwork, too!

Jeffrey Meyerson said...

Over the last few years I've read all the available volumes of Silverberg's collected stories, as well as early ones he chose not to include, so I've probably read all of these fairly recently.

I'm now catching up on some of his many novels.

I did notice that about the wire and the phone.

Todd Mason said...

"To See the Invisible Man" might be the early story of Silverberg's that most famously demonstrated where he wanted to go...Ellison's "All the Sounds of Fear" or even SPIDER KISS (despite it being a contemporary crime fiction novel) being comparable for him...

Bill Crider said...

I agree, Todd, and it's certainly the most "literary" story in the group.

Graham Powell said...

TO SEE THE.. is the only one of these I think I've read, and it really is a terrific story, very compassionate.

Rick Robinson said...

Well Bill, "fodder for the digests of the era" when the era is 1958 - 1964 sounds damn good to me, there were a ton of very good stories in the digests during that time, especially in Galaxy and Astounding. Ive read this collection, used to have it, but didn't consider it a "keeper" when ding some weeding out back when. I'm not the Silverberg fan so many former DAPAns are, but I guess that's on me. I did like Valentine's Castle if that's the right name.

Bill Crider said...

I like that era, too, Rick. Several of the stories in this collection are from GALAXY. Probably most of them. A couple are from FANTASTIC UNIVERSE, I think, and one is from IF. And one's from INFINITY. I read and enjoyed all of those.

Todd Mason said...

LORD VALENTINE'S CASTLE was the first of that sequence, which Silverberg noted at the time was what dragged him back into novels, aside from and rather more than the record advance he got for it, because it was the big, somewhat upbeat adventure novel he had yet to write at that point.

But the kind of story he used to sign "Calvin M, Knox" to was often not RS at his best, if usually rather better than his "Ivar Jorgensen"s.

Todd Mason said...

The latest '50s/early '60s could be proud of the best work in Avram Davidson's F&SF and Cele Goldsmith's FANTASTIC and AMAZING and the Jack Vance and other gems that Frederik Pohl was dolloping out among Not Bad fiction in his early issues of GALAXY and IF at the turn of the '60s...the best items in Robert Lowndes's magazines, VENTURE SF, GAMMA in its brief run, and the occasional excellent work in NEW WORLDS and ANALOG were all worth looking at.

Todd Mason said...

And SCIENCE FANTASY...and NEBULA (did you ever get to see NEBULA back when?)...

Bill Crider said...

Never saw NEW WORLDS, NEBULA, or SCIENCE FANTASY.

Todd Mason said...

Not even that short-lived US edition of NEW WORLDS? Pity, that.

Bill Crider said...

I don't know what kind of distribution it got, but I never saw it on the stands. Of course by then I was reading mostly crime fiction.

Todd Mason said...

1960...FANTASTIC UNIVERSE and THE SAINT bought up by the folks who had a year of introducing a slew of fiction magazines.